Emily Post failed to write a rule book on how one should handle emails or phone calls in situations relating to parentage. Exactly what is the right response to: “My mother might be your half-sister?”
Thankfully, I had covered a number of “found” relative stories in my time as a reporter. I had a bit more of a roadmap to follow than some. I responded to the email with the story of my granny telling me in 1974 about the possibility that my father had another child out there in the blue yonder somewhere. I included my phone number and offered to speak to her mom anytime she wanted to connect.
Then I took the dog for a walk, because what else should a person do when confronted with the “what ifs” of a long-since dead parent’s life?
A few years ago a good friend of mine lost her husband. A family friend we all knew and loved deeply. After he died, my friend asked me for help. Seems her husband had fathered a child in his teen years. She wanted me to help her track this boy down. It didn’t take me but an hour or two of research to find him. It was shocking to see how much he looked like his father. A father he never knew. A father he would never know. I have no idea if he even knows who his biological father is. But the troubling part is that our friend’s children have no idea that their father had another child. He never told them.
It has always been disconcerting to me that I know this story and the man’s own children do not. It is certainly not my place to introduce these siblings to one another. Still, I can’t help but wonder if the dying man ever thought of the son he never knew.
All of that informed the way I responded to the news that my own father might have another biological child somewhere.
I jokingly say that I always half expected a Vietnamese woman to show up at my door one day claiming that I had an half-brother in Vietnam. That scenario wouldn’t have really shocked me, given that Dad was in Vietnam for nearly a year.
This family, however, is from Tennessee. A part of Tennessee that I wrote about in my novels.
When the woman who might be a half sister called me a few days later, I was out walking the dog again. I stood at the edge of a horse pasture and spoke at length with her. She was humble and worried about being a bother. I was curious and felt a great deal of empathy for her. What a troubling place to be in – to have lived a life wondering all the while who your dad might be.
The man who fathered her sisters is listed as her father on her birth certificate. Her mom, Miz M., and that man divorced when she was 11. Miz M. remarried but throughout both those marriages, she kept an 8×10 framed photo of a young soldier prominently displayed in her home.
That was one of the photos that had arrived in my inbox over the weekend.
Miz M. never told her children who the man in the photo was, or why she kept his picture around. I can’t imagine my husband allowing me to keep a framed photo of an old lover around, can you?
When the woman who might be my half-sister was 3 years old, she recalled a man she did not know coming to her home and talking with her grandmother and her mom. Before the man left he picked her up, kissed her on the forehead and said, “You look exactly like I thought you would.”
The year was 1963.
Now before you go on saying people can’t remember anything from age 3, I will tell you I remember Brother Frankie peeing in the sandbox when I was 3 and me yelling at Mama about him. I also remember the night I fell off the bunk and busted open my chin and the emergency trip Daddy and I made to Martin Army Hospital to get my chin sewed back up. And the time Frankie pulled the refrigerator over by swinging on the door arm. I could go on. Some of us can remember way back stuff.
The second memory this gal had was of being taken by her mom to a funeral home a few years later. This was a visitation, as we call it down South. That time when folks go pay their respects prior to the funeral. She recalled Miz M. picking her up to peer better into the casket and telling her to “remember that man’s face”.
The year was 1966.
She didn’t know the timeline. I put that together: She was born in the fall of 1960. She would have turned 3 in 1963. The year Dad received his orders for Hawaii. We made a trip to East Tennessee to say goodbye to our kin. Dad died in July of 1966. His funeral was August of 1966. She would have turned 6 the following month.
Her age was the thing that surprised me the most. When Granny Leona told me in 1974, that my father may have another child out in the world, in my mind, I had assumed that to mean that he fathered another child when he was a teenager. That child, if they existed, would have to be older than my brother – not younger than my sister.
It had never occurred to me that my father would have had an affair while married, or that he would have done so with a woman who was also married. But he obviously knew Miz M.. How else did this family have access to his photos?
My Nashville aunt confirmed it when I called to tell her this story. She knew Miz M.. Knew that Dad and her had been an item at one time. “But that was long before he and Shelby went together,” my aunt said. As far as my Nashville aunt knew, the dalliance between Dave and Miz M. had ended years before any of us where born. Granny had never mentioned to anyone other than me, it seems, that there might be a half-sibling somewhere.
No child, no matter what age, likes to think of their mom or dad loving anybody other than their mom or dad. And when a child loses a parent at a young age, there are never opportunities for that child to hear the stories of a father or mother growing up. Their past loves. Their hobbies. Their favorite song. Their first kiss. Those stories are all lost. Sealed away in a casket. Story to dust.
But this much I know is true: My father and Miz M. had been an item when they were young. And perhaps he hooked up with her again prior to heading off to Hawaii. They certainly wouldn’t be the first couple to renew an old flame, if only briefly.
When Miz M. got dementia and began to falter, she told her daughter one day that she needed to “go pay your respects to that man”.
She knew that her mom was talking about the man in the photograph.
The one with the name David P. Spears written on the back.
That was the name her own daughter typed into Google Search on that Sunday in August.
The name that led them to me: Sgt. Spears’s daughter.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of After the Flag has been Folded (William Morrow).